Wednesday, February 16, 2011

India: the new East India Company

The flagship of the British colonial empire comes back as a luxury brand.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
(February 16, 2011)

NEW DELHI, India — Once upon a time, the East India Company toppled governments, enslaved peoples and staffed a private army and navy to rule the world of commerce — then dominated by tea, coffee and exotic spices.

Now Sanjiv Mehta, a 48-year-old British Indian businessman, believes it's time for the ultimate symbol of colonial oppression to make a comeback — you guessed it, as a luxury brand.

"Wealth is moving from the West to the East, and all the luxury brands are typically brands which originated in the West," Mehta told GlobalPost. "[In that context] the East India Company is an interesting brand because Asia looks at it as the old West and the West looks at it as the exotic East."

An Indian buying the East India Company is a gimmick that makes good copy, of course. But the East India Company is actually the real deal.

Having been nationalized after the 1857 rebellion in India that Britain dubbed "the mutiny" despite its revolutionary character, the "brand" was lying virtually forgotten in the hands of the British crown and a handful of apathetic shareholders when Mehta ran across it in 2004. He snapped it up — along with the original coat of arms and merchant's mark — and set about sourcing some $15 million in investment capital to put it back on the map.

According to company lore, Mehta then spent six years meeting museum curators and examining company artifacts to make sure he got the image right before he finally launched the flagship store in London last year.

"It was a long journey," Mehta said.

The London launch received predictable fanfare. This year, though, will be time to put up or shut up, as the East India Company goes back to its colonial roots in Hong Kong, Singapore and India, where the $7 billion Mahindra Group announced it was taking a minority stake in the brand in January.

"India, Singapore and Hong Kong were huge locations for the East India Company," Mehta said, recalling the company's role in forming each of these nations. "We definitely have a very aggressive plan to enter all these markets," he added. "We will be entering with our fine foods business in India in 2011, starting from Bombay."

Mahindra, which knows the market, is optimistic. "The East India Company (EIC) is a truly global brand and can transverse across multiple product categories," Parag Shah, managing partner in Mahindra's investment arm, said in a press statement. "This 400-year-old brand is the first modern transnational brand and in a sense, the founder of the phrase 'international trade.'"

But will colonial chic sell in the colony that lent the company its name?

"The relationship of India with its colonial past has always been surprisingly without rancor, and the fact that some Indian businessman is reviving the brand is not without irony and all that," said Santosh Desai, chief executive of Future Brands. "But it's a symbolic kind of move. It's hardly likely to be a significant brand in a real sense."

The new East India Company sells posh chocolates, tea and coffee and the kind of condiments that old India hands used to whinge were always running out (mustards, marmalade — but not Marmite), as well as gold bullion. But in all of those product categories, it's likely to find that the same economic and cultural developments that have refurbished the old colonial brand as politically correct will also make its former home market a tough nut to crack, says Desai.

To be sure, India has shed its postcolonial baggage. There are still gin and tonics and whisky sodas at "the club" for the old Indian elite, and condo complexes with pretentious-sounding names like the Wyndham Estate. But these days, the cricket team expects to thrash the Brits soundly whenever they meet, and the players are as apt to call their white opponents "sir" as they are to sprout wings and fly.

Young people no longer strive for "propah" British accents — or even American ones — preferring the free-flowing mashup of Hinglish to any other lingo. And the most popular foreign grub — American fast food — must be thoroughly Indianized before it will sell.

"In general, 15 years ago there was a presumption of superiority for an international brand in all sorts of categories," said Desai. But that's no longer the case — even when it comes to products like cars, refrigerators and stereos. "For a whole set of general brands, in everyday categories, Western brands have become commonplace, and the distinction between Indian and Western brands has become less significant."

For luxury brands like the East India Company aspires to be, that's not strictly the case, though one increasingly finds the collections of top Indian designers alongside clothing labeled with Armani or Zegna — and Jaguar, of course, is already owned by Tata. The Haagen Daaz outlet in New Delhi's most popular mall, for instance, is almost always packed even though — or perhaps because — its ice cream costs nearly $10 a scoop.

But brand-conscious consumers are conservative in India — where class distinctions are rigid, and the gossip is vicious. So however long its history, East India Company may find it tough to compete with established brands.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Killing India's Right to Information law

India's most vital tool for fighting corruption is bleeding from a thousand cuts.

By Jason Overdorf - GlobalPost
(February 15, 2011)

NEW DELHI, India — Empowered by a groundbreaking new law designed to help ordinary citizens fight corruption, Jagdish Sharma took on the leading clan of his village to expose the alleged theft of an elderly residents' pension money last week. But his triumph was short lived.

Just days after Sharma filed his case against the village head, Dharambir Malik, using India's Right to Information (RTI) act, Malik allegedly plowed down Sharma and several other protesters with his SUV — crushing Sharma's legs and killing his daughter-in-law, Sonu, according to local press reports. And though police say murder charges have been leveled against Malik, India's RTI crusaders argue that Sonu's death is the latest in a thousand cuts that are slowly killing the country's most powerful tool in the fight against corruption.

"This is a message to anyone raising their voice against corruption, that you will be killed," said Arvind Kejriwal, one of the leaders of the decade-long campaign for the RTI Act.

At least a dozen whistleblowers have been murdered for daring to expose crime and corruption since the RTI act was passed in 2005, according to activist Parshuram Ray. But rather than strengthening the law and fighting to protect the citizens who use it, the government is backpedaling fast to strip RTI of its sweeping powers, even as politicians and bureaucrats have adopted an informal go-slow policy that threatens to make it obsolete.

Already, by 2015, the Central Information Commission — the body responsible for addressing complaints when officials give incomplete or evasive answers to RTI requests — will face a backlog of 90,000 cases, which means an applicant would have to wait up to six years for an appeal. And the situation is all too likely to get worse.

"Despite all the provisions of the act, at every level information is being denied, and nothing is happening. Nobody is being punished for that," said Ray, who faced stonewalling when he sought to use RTI to expose corruption in a national program that provides work and wages for the rural poor. "The reality is that the original aims and objectives of the RTI act have almost been shattered."

The success or failure of these efforts to hamstring India's information law could well mark a turning point in the country's escalating battle against corruption, as well as the struggle for basic human rights.

The volume of alleged corruption exposed in recent months has been dramatic enough to raise fears that failure to rein in crony capitalism could derail the India rise to prominence on the global stage — especially after it was revealed that foreign direct investment has plunged 60 percent this year.

But the drama might actually be a sign of progress — showing not that corruption is increasing by leaps and bounds, but that more and more scandals are coming to light. And as bruised and battered as it may be, say some activists, that's down to the RTI. Not only did the act play a direct role in exposing two of the largest recent corruption scandals involving the telecom and defense ministries, says Nikhil Dey, another RTI pioneer, but it has also made it much easier for whistleblowers inside government to leak information without fear of reprisals, since an RTI filing from a newspaper is a speedy way to end a witchhunt.

"Once you enter the domain of open information, even a leak is legitimized much more," said Dey. "Before, the press had to think of a million ways to legitimize the information, because otherwise their source would be traced and persecuted. Now, because RTI is so extensive and powerful, it makes it very difficult for someone to say, 'How did this information get out?'"

Indeed, when it was passed in 2005, the RTI act promised a sea change in governance. By granting citizens the right to demand transparency, it swept out the colonial era practice of denying access to even the most mundane details of government programs under the official secrets act. It sought to pre-empt bureaucratic sloth and obfuscation by requiring government departments to respond to requests within 30 days. It mandated that every department computerize and make public its records proactively so that citizens could eventually access most information without filing a request. And it put in place stiff penalties for officials who refuse to comply.

But as individual citizens and civil society groups discover more and more ways to use the law, various efforts to undermine the RTI are gathering momentum. Virtually no department has voluntarily complied with the provision requiring proactive disclosure. Everyone from the Supreme Court to the Central Bureau of Investigation is fighting to be declared exempt from information requests. The government is seeking to amend the rules governing RTI requests in a move that activists say would make the procedure more arcane and thus make it easier for bureaucrats to justify stonewalling.

The information commissions are also being starved of resources. There are only six central information commissioners instead of the allotted 11, for instance, and limitations on hiring additional staff prevent them from clearing their backlog of complaints. Meanwhile, at the state level matters can be even worse. In Orissa and West Bengal, for example, the information commissioners are so far behind that they'll need more than 10 years to clear their present backlog of complaints, according to a survey by the Public Cause Research Foundation — and that's if they don't receive any appeals over the next decade.

"The reluctance to part with the information is just part of an old mindset," said Dey. "Very often if bureaucrats meet together they exchange notes about how they can avoid revealing information."

And that teamwork might be working, according to Anjali Bhardwaj, who heads Satark Nagrik Sangathan, an non-governmental organization that trains citizens to use the RTI act. At the grassroots level, India's bureaucrats are getting more and more clever at sidestepping the law. Aware of the long delays of an appeal, officials routinely refuse to disclose basic information about government activities by claiming it would violate the right to privacy, require applicants to prove their citizenship before they'll accept the request, or use the arcane structure of the bureaucracy itself to send them from one public information officer to another like Kafka's man before the law.

In the latest twist, most government bodies are putting low-level functionaries in place as public information officers so that even if they are sincere they don't have the clout needed to get documents from their colleagues.

"It clearly looks like a very deliberate move in government departments," said Bhardwaj.

Friday, February 11, 2011

India-Pakistan talks: read between the lines

Analysis: It's official. New Delhi lost the stalemate.

By Jason Overdorf
(February 11, 2011)

NEW DELHI, India — Nominally, India and Pakistan agreed to resume [2] high level peace talks Thursday.

But in reality, New Delhi bent over backwards to give in to Islamabad before the proposed negotiations even begin — by granting the Kashmir dispute equal status on the agenda with the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

So how did India go from refusing to talk to begging for talks?

New Delhi believes that it has no choice but to talk eventually and surmises that the anger over the Mumbai attacks has faded enough over the past two years to make a resumption possible. Meanwhile, with the expected drawdown and eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan on the horizon, India may believe that a magnanimous stance today could help it to negotiate a stronger post-conflict role for itself in Kabul.

"I think it was necessary for us to discuss Afghanistan ... ," Indian foreign minister S.M. Krishna [3] told reporters in New York Thursday, according to the Times of India newspaper. "India has been playing a very positive role in trying to build Afghanistan in terms of our volunteers who have gone there for capacity building and so I think Afghanistan had to be included," the paper quoted Rao as saying.

Unfortunately, what's more likely is that resuming the dialogue will just give Islamabad — which is wary even of India's limited present role in Afghanistan — another chance to run circles around India's negotiators.

Already, India has agreed to discuss a whole range of issues, including Pakistan's claims to territory in Indian-administered Kashmir, which will inevitably remove the focus from Pakistan's alleged support of terrorist groups that attack India.

At a 90-minute meeting between Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao and her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir on the sidelines of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation meeting in Thimphu, Bhutan, on Sunday, the two countries agreed to a series of secretary-level meetings to discuss, among other issues, confidence-building measures like cross-border bus services, the dispute over Sir Creek (between India's Gujarat and Pakistan's Sindh province) and Pakistan's desire to redraw the borders of Kashmir.

"The reality is that India and Pakistan cannot afford to turn their backs to each other, that they must engage in dialogue which is, as I said, serious and sustainable and comprehensive," Rao said in a televised interview on Thursday, when the substance of the Sunday meeting was disclosed.

It's taken two years, but that's a pretty big flip-flop.

Once, India claimed it would not resume normal diplomatic relations until Islamabad cracked down on terrorist groups operating with impunity in Pakistan and began a vigorous prosecution of the alleged perpetrators of the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai. That vigorous prosecution never happened, of course. But as the United States proved unable to exert any pressure on Pakistan and instead began pressuring India to return to the negotiating table, New Delhi swiftly went from refusing to talk to begging to talk.

To make matters worse, China stepped up to back Pakistan's military shadow government. And events like the assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer for opposing Pakistan's blasphemy laws — which suggest that Pakistan's radicals are gaining ground — have convinced India that it has no choice but to backpedal. Playing hardball, the logic runs, will only give Pakistan's hardliners more room for saber-rattling — and more credibility on the street. If it wasn't clear before, it is clear now: India has lost the stalemate.

"Any rational observer would say this is not the time to nourish much hope on moving forward on substantive issues," said former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal. "But on our side they feel that vacuum is not in our favor and by not talking we would be giving up whatever little hope there is ... of stemming the rise of these radical forces and giving some backing to those who wish to normalize relations with India — especially Pakistani civil society."

But preventing Pakistani hardliners from playing the India card comes at a cost. The presumption that Qureshi will visit India in July to review the progress made by the two countries' foreign secretaries over the intervening months underscores the impression that India must woo Pakistan, even to merit a visit from its foreign minister. And it's far easier to make friendly noises now — when Indian-administered Kashmir enjoys a predictable winter lull in separatist protests — than it will be when Srinagar inevitably heats up for the summer.

At the last meeting between Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers last July, for instance, when Srinagar was rocked by bloody riots over the killing of civilian by Indian security forces, Qureshi sandbagged during meetings with Krishna in Islamabad. Then Qureshi undermined any possible gains at the post mortem press conference by equating a top Indian official with Hafiz Saeed — the Pakistani radical whom India believes masterminded the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and whose continued freedom and influence in Pakistan is a major impediment to better relations.

Indeed, if past talks are any indicator, nothing is likely to emerge from more dialogue. Though talking with Qureshi does grant Pakistan's democratically elected government an added stamp of legitimacy, in order to make progress India needs to negotiate with the real center of power in Islamabad — Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who heads the Pakistani army.

Moreover, Manmohan Singh's government is in a weakened position domestically, and recent revelations about the involvement of Hindu terror cells in the bombing of a "Friendship Express" train between Delhi and Lahore — in which 42 Pakistani citizens were killed — has undermined India's previous position of moral superiority.

"The jury is still out on these talks," said Indiana University professor Sumit Ganguly. "Any progress, will necessarily be extremely slow and incremental. The level of distrust in India is too great and the PM is too weak with the opposition in an uproar about multiple [corruption] scandals."

By caving into Pakistan's demands up front and allowing Kashmir and "all outstanding issues" back on the table, India has essentially admitted that it has nothing to negotiate with. The threat of war is an empty one (thankfully), and generous aid from an opportunistic China and a fearful United States renders India's economic clout meaningless.

"The stick we have we can't use, and the carrot that the Pakistanis want [Kashmir] we can't give them," said Sibal.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

A Bend In The River

The fabulous Darbargadh Palace in Morvi opens its doors.

Outlook Traveler - Feb. 1, 2011

In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that I’m an easy enough heritage tourist. To me the mark of a good hotel has never been the variety of pillows on the bedside menu or the number of 20-something management trainees deputed to be my personal slaves. I am not in business. I have never sent an urgent fax in the pitch-black night. I like to feel comfortable, and I am not comfortable with absurd efficiency—which so often comes to resemble its opposite—or with making a dozen decisions before something so simple as turning off the light and drifting off to sleep.

A little charm and character makes up for a lot of opulence, and I don’t mind wearing a sweater in my room or running the tap for ten minutes to get hot water.
Fortunately, the Darbargadh Palace, a new heritage hotel in Morvi, Gujarat, has that charm and character in spades.

Opening to tourists this month, Darbargadh is a stunning, nineteenth-century neoclassical palace that has been lovingly restored by the Neemrana Group and Maharani Uma Dubash Morvi. The oldest of the region’s palaces, its stone walls tower over the meandering Macchu river alongside a swaying footbridge, but it feels less like a fortress than a mansion. Only seven guest rooms have been restored so far—there is an entire wing, equally large, that remains untouched—so, intimacy is the rule.

Unlike some heritage properties, there are no poor rooms here. Every room is a vast suite, with bedroom, dining area, sitting room and a colossal bathroom that would dwarf many a Manhattan studio, and the Maharani, who personally chose the d├ęcor, has beautifully recreated the neoclassical ambience with rich details like the embroidered cloth tapestries—specially woven by some of the world’s largest looms in Jaipur—which grace the stone instead of paint or wallpaper.

Each room boasts a distinguishing feature that gives it character, a marble fireplace or carved frieze, and wherever possible the designers have retained and accentuated elements of the palace’s original structure. The Kesarba Mahal I stayed in, for example—which was chosen for the terrace overlooking the Macchu—had an exposed stone archway separating the bedroom from the seating area, while the Mahindra Mahal boasts an original stone frieze depicting characters from ancient Greece.

The town of Morvi—a sleepy hamlet, known mainly for tile manufacturing, in the centre of a dry state—is, of course, not on the usual tourist’s itinerary. Morvi is only an hour from the airport (and railway station) at Rajkot, and there are a few attractions within striking distance in Dhrangadhra, Wadhwan, Maliya and Limbdi—each of which boasts palaces, stepwells and rustic bazaars. The only real ‘sights’ in Morvi are the hanging bridge and the Wagh Mandir, a 70-year-old temple of Jaipur stone that is currently being restored and expanded into a museum dedicated to the region’s royal past.

Darbargadh itself is the only true reason to stop here, most likely en route from Ahmedabad to Kutch. But Neemrana is renowned for turning hotels into destinations, and Darbargadh seems likely to uphold that tradition. Over my two-night stay, I never felt the least inclined to step outside the palace, whose high, thick walls kept out the noise of the city so that I could hear only the parakeets and songbirds as I lounged by the swimming pool in the courtyard with my Kindle. The winter sun was warm and bright, and from the terrace attached to my room I could look out over the tenant farms on the floodplain the way Maharaja Waghji Rawaji Thakore must have done in 1885.

The food at Darbargadh was excellent, and the service impeccable—as personable and informal as a trusted family retainer. Each morning, I devoured a stack of aloo parathas, a plate of sharp cheddar cheese and a basket of toast fingers with homemade jam, yet I always seemed to find room for lunch and dinner. As the hotel’s first guest, I had the luxury of ordering whatever I felt like (there was no menu), but I left it to the chef to try to impress me with his specialities, and once I convinced him that he didn’t need to make everything foreigner-bland, the eclectic feasts he prepared—think devilled eggs, penne arrabiata, mashed potatoes and mutton rogan josh—never failed to satisfy.

Only when it came time to leave did I venture out for a brief tour, stopping at the Wagh Mandir for an impromptu lesson in the techniques that the builders from Structwel—the same outfit that repaired the Taj Palace after the Mumbai attacks —were employing to fortify the cupolas damaged by the 2001 earthquake. Vipul, the hotel manager, had also arranged for me to visit the ‘new palace’ across the river, which the Maharani maintains as a part-time residence, so I spent the rest of the morning on a private viewing of the country’s finest art-deco palace outside of Jodhpur’s Umaid Bhavan.

When I left I was stuffed, rested and fully content, my only worry that I was returning to Delhi and work, instead of on down the road to Bhuj and further adventures.

The information

Location Morvi, Gujarat; three-four hours by car from Ahmedabad/one hour from Rajkot
Accommodation Seven suites (Vijayba, Kesarba, Bajiraj, Waghji, Lakhdir, Mahindra and Mayurdhwaj Mahals)
Tariff Rs 8,000 (Vijayba, Kesarba, Lakhdir, Mahindra, Mayurdhwaj); Rs 10,000 (Bajiraj, Waghji)
Contact 011-46661666,